Job interviews are becoming more like first dates.” Or so reads a Businessweek article on how cultural fit increasingly complements or even trumps qualifications as the most important hiring criteria. The article cites Glassdoor, a website offering an inside look at jobs and companies, which notes that questions like “What’s your favorite movie?” rank among the top 50 asked at job interviews in 2012.

Famous examples abound here in Silicon Valley. Facebook wants people who “Move fast and break things.” Palantir hires people who want to “Save the Shire,” and PayPal famously hired competitive workaholics with anti-establishment leanings.

When it comes time to nail down a definition of what people mean when they talk about company culture, however, the definitions are as standardized as definitions of art. Is company culture a big vision for the company? A manner of getting along with co-workers? Prioritizing certain values over others? Or aspects of the work environment like level of autonomy and uncertainty?

Ditto for why it’s important. Does it inform the type of product that gets built or service offered? Keep work a pleasant place to be? Serve to keep employees motivated through long days? Or keep employees from jumping ship post-IPO?

Despite the lack of clarity, work on “collective intelligence” out of MIT and Carnegie Mellon provides one example of what cultural fit can look like and the importance it can have. The professors explain their research:

“We set out to test the hypothesis that groups, like individuals, have a consistent ability to perform across different kinds of tasks. Our hypothesis was confirmed. We found that there is a general effectiveness, a group collective intelligence, which predicts a group’s performance in many situations.”

In short, teamwork is kind of important. To test their hypothesis, the researchers had teams of two to five people perform various tasks such as visual puzzles, negotiations, and brainstorming. They found that each group performed consistently well or poorly across tasks. Each group had a “collective intelligence” or general effectiveness rate that could predict its ability to solve problems together.

What accounted for a team’s collective intelligence? Rather than being the sum of its members’ intelligence and skills, the professors found that it chiefly derived from how well the teams worked together. David Brooks of the New York Times summarizes:

“The groups that did well had members that were good at reading each other’s emotions. They took turns when speaking. Participation in conversation was widely distributed. There was no overbearing leader dominating everything.”

According to this research, you can have all the A players you want. But if they lack the emotion intelligence to work well together, then their potential will always be limited. Here then, is an example of cultural fit. A company could prioritize these types of dynamics in group work, and hire for people with the social sensitivity to do it well. Doing so should have a very real impact on a company’s ability to perform and solve problems.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.